“My Lords,” former chairman of the Conservative Party and Margaret Thatcher’s favourite attack dog Norman Tebbit once said, “Will the Minister bear in mind Enoch Powell’s great dictum that wherever the word ‘social’ is used as an adjective, it will surely reverse or negate the meaning of the noun to which it is applied? In the light of that, would he be so kind as to define social exclusion and social cohesion as he understands them?”
It occurs to me that in no case is Powell’s observation truer than in that of social media. Evidence is growing that while we are ever more plugged in to the various beeping, whining and whinnying devices that surround us, we’re getting lonelier than ever, as social dislocation replaces the real world communication that social networking was supposed to augment.
We have seen the apex of the social software revolution; we know where it leads: social networks engineered to be as “sticky” (that is, addictive) as possible, trapping us inside walled gardens that revolve around peculiarly psychologically toxic parodies of genuine human interaction while flogging us garbage based on our age, our sexual orientation and how many times we searched for vacuum cleaner nozzles this week.
What’s next? The answer is obvious: anthropomorphism. We have reached the limit of where glossy touchscreens and sleek user interfaces can take us. These mediating surfaces provided by social software, which fool us into believing we are better connected with one another but which only serve to alienate have achieved their inevitable zenith: the clinics are open and charging; children are looking for arteries; multi-storey car parks have discovered tragic new clientele.
The next wave is coming: devices which do not only replace human interaction, but which mimic its interlocutors—machines more fluent and engaging than any man in the street. Washing machines whose cheery tones perk up your morning. Games whose protagonists play on your mind more than your wife does. Phones you can speak with and instruct. Some of these things are already happening.
The most cursory of internet searches now reveals that the marketing gurus of Cupertino have done their work: hopeless and hilarious addictions to metal and plastic blossom across the West and emerging markets, while games manufacturers in San Francisco and the North of England pay lip service to social cohesiveness while ramming a wedge between every lonely maths teacher and his abandoned children.
Social networking. Has there ever been a more deceptive moniker for a cluster of engineered systems and user interface conventions designed specifically to keep people alone, at their computers, clicking on advertising? The finest minds of our generation are piled high in Palo Alto, figuring out how to garner that extra engagement: the click that finally promises to make poor, sad Brenda in Bradford economically useful.
Are we sure we know what we’re doing?